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Controversy Continues over NJ Schools Development Authority

Amid storm over CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco’s hirings and firings, a show of support for embattled leader of the SDA

Construction of school
Credit: NJSDA
Construction of new elementary school in East Orange

Amid ongoing upheaval at the Schools Development Authority — the state agency that oversees construction in New Jersey’s poorest public school districts — school buildings in New Jersey are deteriorating, according to residents and local officials who say SDA money has run out.

The SDA is mired in a personnel scandal anchored to its CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco that’s threatening to bring the authority down. The former union official and vice-chair of the Democratic State Committee has been accused of replacing dozens of staffers with well-paid, well-connected individuals. But, at a meeting of the SDA board on Wednesday, many in the education, union, and faith communities came out to show support for Delgado-Polanco, arguing she has brought much needed minority representation to the beleaguered agency at a time when urban schools need so much attention.

“We’ve got a pearl, a diamond, not even in the rough, that’s a diamond already polished. She’s doing things that nobody else ever did,” said Manuel Segura, a former Trenton councilman and member of the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation. He added that he has been “in the trenches” with Delgado-Polanco and has seen firsthand the work that she’s done for the community. “I am behind [her] 100 percent,” he said.

CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco
Credit: NJTV News
Lizette Delgado-Polanco, CEO of New Jersey Schools Development Authority

The SDA board of directors has launched an internal investigation after reports by Northjersey.com and the USA Today Network found that Delgado-Polanco greenlit a massive firing-then-hiring spree that resulted in the termination of 26 staffers and the appointment of 38 people. The hires included a family member who had been accused of sexual harassment, a friend of her daughter’s, the mother of her grandchild, and at least 10 other individuals who previously worked with Delgado-Polanco. Still others reportedly worked on the Murphy campaign or in the governor’s office including Al Alvarez, the former Murphy campaign official who became chief of staff at the SDA and remained on the job for months after being accused of sexual assault.

Accusation of ‘binge nepotism’

On Wednesday, two former SDA employees testified that they were fired unfairly, and one prospective applicant said she was told a hiring freeze prevented her interviews from progressing all while a “backdoor” process ushered in an under-qualified but well-connected new team.

“The entire organization is dysfunctional,” said Sameer Shah, a 16-year former SDA employee.

David Barie, another former employee, said the amount of “unjustified termination” at the authority “precipitated the binge nepotism” that the SDA is in hot water for today.

Sameer Shah
Credit: NJTV News
Sameer Shah, a former SDA employee, testified that he was fired unfairly.

The SDA’s history is rife with accusations of mismanagement. It was founded in 2008 when its prior incarnation, the Schools Construction Corp., was abolished after reports showed generally loose oversight and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on consulting and management fees. The new agency was granted $12 billion in bonding authority to carry out its court-mandated mission of upgrading schools in so-called SDA districts.

Formerly known as “Abbott districts,” these are the 31 poorest areas of the state as determined by the state Supreme Court’s so-called Abbott decisions. The courts determined that the state must provide 100 percent funding for all school renovation and construction projects in those districts. The SDA also provides grants to other school districts labeled as “regular operating districts” (RODs).

According to the authority, since its inception it has provided $5.5 billion in funding for more than 850 school facilities projects. That includes more than 5,400 grants for RODs in all 21 counties The SDA manages about $11 billion in construction projects and its current portfolio of active capital projects is valued at approximately $2 billion.

Deep in debt

But the SDA is deep in debt and is completely out of funding for new projects. As a result, it is seeking reauthorization to bond several billion dollars more, although officials at the authority have not specified exactly how much money it will be seeking or when it will do that.

What’s more, if some legislators — including Senate President Steve Sweeney — have their way, the authority could be abolished altogether in the wake of this latest scandal. Gov. Phil Murphy, who appointed Delgado-Polanco, has called for an investigation not just at SDA but all state authorities, demanding they hand over three years documentation of hirings and hiring protocols.

But on Wednesday, supporters said the answer to the authority’s woes should not be abolishment, but financial and political support for Delgado-Polanco, who many in the public claim has stressed diversity, inclusion, and representation in her management style.

“Inclusion and diversity are very important,” Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association and education chair of the Camden NAACP said. “It is important that we keep [Delgado-Polanco] … I speak with all 40 chapters of my NAACP throughout the state. They all feel the same way.”

Support for Delgado-Polanco

Amir Khan
Credit: NJTV News
Amir Khan, a Camden pastor, spoke strongly in support of Delgado-Polanco

“We all read the articles, Lizette, and we’re here to speak in support of the management team you’ve put in place,” said Amir Khan, pastor and former mayoral candidate in Camden, speaking directly to the CEO. “In dealing with the SDA management team in the past six, seven, eight years, we’ve had so much more success with the professionalism, follow-through, and expertise with this management team than we’ve had with any teams in the past,” he added.

James Harris, president of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, mirrored Khan’s assertions that previous SDA staffers under various administrations did not share Delgado-Polanco’s perspective as a person of color.

“There was hatred, racism, and discrimination that was plainly visible,” Harris said. “Leadership makes a difference. We were hoping that with the new leadership we’re gonna get diversity and inclusion, something that was completely absent for many years.”

Harris implored the board to look past the political scandal and “get on with the business of building schools so our children can get a free, competitive education in a global economy.”

Pastor Mark Broach of the Trenton Deliverance Center Church and many others who have personal experience with the SDA-district schools shared horror stories of kids in run-down urban schools. Broach noted that while the investigations are ongoing, children are still expected to attend unfit schools and there is no money to fix them.

Ronsha Dickerson, national organizer with Journey for Justice Alliance in Camden and parent of six children said for years, her kids “had to eat and have gym in an all-purpose room where the ceiling was leaking dirty water. And how they’d capture that water is they put a kiddie pool in there. And then our children eat around that kiddie pool.”

“What we do to our children is make them believe this is acceptable,” Dickerson said. “So I'm asking the SDA to investigate deeper.”

As parents and concerned residents from Abbott districts continue to press the SDA to serve out its mission of keeping school buildings safe in New Jersey, the political firestorm at the top of the authority worsens by the day.

A new damaging report out Thursday revealed that several of the SDA new hires lacked professional experience, accreditation, and even college degrees. Officials from both the Department of Education and the SDA are set to appear before the Assembly Budget Committee next Wednesday, when the controversy can be expected to be brought up.

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